It’s probably too good to be true

SR9009 and SR9011 are drugs which selectively kill cancer cells by an entirely new mechanism.  They mess with DNA but don’t mutate it. [ Nature vol. 553 pp. 351 – 355 ’18 ] has the details.

First a bit of background.  How do the classic hormones (estrogen, androgen, thyroid, adrenal steroids) do what they do?  Clearly they change the expression of many many genes as any post-pubertal woman will attest.  They bind to proteins called nuclear hormone receptors, changing their shape so they can bind to DNA and change gene expression.   We have 48 of them in our genome.  For a long time we didn’t know what the natural ligands of many actually were.  These were called orphan nuclear hormone receptors.  I’m not sure how many orphans are left.


SR9009 and SR9011 bind to REV-ERBalpha and REV-ERBbeta which are nuclear hormone receptors. They are agonists (e.g. they cause SR9009 and 11 to do what they do)  Their natural ligand is heme (which isn’t a hormone) and they are involved in the circadian clock.   However they also act as repressors of processes involved in tumorigenesis, including metabolism, proliferation and inflammation.

So the authors threw the agonists at a variety of tumor cells (brain cancer, leukaemia, breast cancer, colon cancer and melanoma) and watched them commit suicide (apoptosis).  They had no effect on normal cells !

How do they work?  There is only speculation at this point.  It is known that SR90xx’s inhibit autophagy, something cancer cells depend on for nourishment.  Normal cells only use autophagy under starvation conditions. They also repress several lipogenic enzymes (fatty acid synthase etc. etc) and cancer cells are said to be dependent on de novo lipogenesis (if they want to proliferate, they got to make a lot of membrane).

It’s almost too good to be true.  Stay tuned.

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  • John Wayne  On January 25, 2018 at 1:32 pm

    I really hope something comes out of this. A nitrothiophene is not what a contemporary medicinal chemist wants to see in a lead. Sometimes I think the whole ‘bad functional groups’ literature is very useful (PAINS, etc.), but at other times I think the majority of rely on it instead of thinking … a sort of atomic stereotyping.

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